The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s199g10  Sunday 32  Hanmer Springs  7/11/2010

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘whose wife will the woman be?’  Luke 20.33

The tradition of the Levirate marriage, the marrying of the deceased brother’s wife is ancient, being specified in Deuteronomy 25.5-6 and was clearly known in the time of Genesis 38:6-10, after Joseph was sold to the slave traders and went to Egypt.   Judah, Jacob’s fourth son by Leah, takes a Canaanite wife, who bears him three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah.   Judah arranges Er to marry Tamar, presumably also a Canaanite woman, but we are told Er is wicked and the Lord ‘put him to death’.   So Tamar is given to Onan his brother to raise up offspring for Er, but when ‘Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother’.

I note that this is a repeated malicious act toward a foreign woman and we are told: ‘What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.’   It is clear that it was vitally important to Tamar that she have a child, because eventually she has to trick Judah, her father in law, into making her pregnant.

Now this might seem an awful lot of detail, but it is important to see that those who are wicked are very clear what belongs to whom, just like the questioners who come to Jesus want to know whose this seven times married woman will be in the life to come.  These people knew the law inside out, but they were still wicked, and the reason why they were wicked is all to do with knowing who belonged to whom.

This should alert us to the eternal propensity of the children of God to know what is theirs and to act uncharitably towards others, ‘christians’ no less than any others.

Of course the actions of Onan have spawned an official condemnation of masturbation, though for the life of me, I cannot understand why.  This should also alert us to the propensity of the church to criticise other people’s intimate behaviour, blithely blinding themselves to the real message of charity so clearly set out in scripture.   Here was a foreign woman being abused by a key member of God’s chosen people, and God was prepared to kill the descendants of Judah when they acted uncharitably towards her.   Being the people of God is no excuse for maliciousness.

In the course of the preparation of this sermon I did some research and found that St Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1275) rated the seriousness of the various sins of initmacy - (if I read him correctly) with masturbation as most serious (!), then incest, rape, adultery and premarital intimacy as the least serious!   (Summa Theologica II-II, 154, 12   I wish I knew that when I was growing up :-)

Wikipedia tells me that John Harvey Kellogg (1852 - 1943 - of breakfast cereal fame) ‘was an especially zealous campaigner; this was an orthodox view during his lifetime, especially the earlier part.   Kellogg was able to draw upon many medical sources' claims such as "neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism," credited to one Dr. Adam Clarke.   Kellogg strongly warned against the habit in his own words, claiming .. (it) .. destroyed not only physical and mental health, but the moral health of individuals as well. .. (and) caused cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy, insanity, and mental and physical debility; (apparently) "dimness of vision" was only briefly mentioned.  (

It continues to be condemned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2352   And no doubt there are some good Anglicans who would teach the same thing.

I find it fascinating that concentrating on the sins of intimacy of others - concerning oneself only with the moral purity of oneself and one’s spiritual family, makes us blind to the needs of others - it makes us dead.   God is God of the living and the seeing, not God of the dead.   This is the message of today’s gospel.   It is the Church playing with itself that makes it blind!

Jesus leads us to see that every person is deserving of respect.   Women are not chattels of men, to be given away even to the man the daughter may have chosen.   God, by whatever name God is called, will not countenance rape as a weapon of war by any self-proclaimed disciples.   Nothing, but nothing, excuses treating others as less than one would treat one’s own son or daughter.   So there is absolutely no point whatsoever in making a distinction between ‘christians’ and others.   Labelling those who belong to us and our tribe, ‘christians’ makes us as wicked as the questioners who come to Jesus.

Would any of us invite someone to our home and then say that because they weren’t part of our family, they couldn’t share in the meal?   So when we expect others to come to church, but then expect them not to receive the Holy Communion, what are we saying?   If we are clear that the Holy Communion only belongs to us, are we not wicked too?   If Holy Communion is just playing with ourselves - are we not thereby already blind, are we not already dead?

Again and again I am coming to realise how the religion I have been taught has focussed on my behaviour, when Jesus came and talked about right religion.   It was not individuals who had Jesus killed, but a theology which delineated who was in and who was out; who belonged to whom, and who didn’t belong.   It was precisely the fact that Jesus associated with those who didn’t belong, the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners, that he had to be disposed of.  

And as I reflect on this I think how the church preaches that we ought to love our enemies as individuals, yet corporately consigns people who don’t believe like us, worship like us and live life like we do - those who don’t belong to us - to eternal damnation.   Is there not some logical disconnect here?   For all we might as individuals love our enemies, if the church as a corporation actually doesn’t accept others for who they are, what good are our little individual efforts?   It leaves me feeling like the church is using me to encourage people to be a part of the church so that then the church can have its way with some more individuals.   And this all in the name of some ‘god’ entirely different from the one I worship.   For when push comes to shove, I personally wouldn’t want to invite any of my friends into a church where there is even the slightest possibility that they might not be accepted fully and enthusiastically, whoever they are, without precondition or expectation.   On the other hand I rejoice to be friends with all sorts of people, and to do so in the name of God.

I started with the statement about how important it is for the wicked to know just who belongs to whom, and I think about the denominationalism that so bedevils both ‘christianity’ and other faiths.   The question: Whose will this other person be? determines our attitudes to them.   Of course the real answer is the the other person belongs to God, whoever they are, whatever they believe or not, however they worship or not, with whom they choose to be intimate or not - everyone is God’s.   No-one is put on this earth to be anyone else’s.  

My text for today was: ‘whose wife will the woman be?’ when they really meant: ‘which man did this seven times married woman really belong to?’   And the answer to that is: none of them!   Even marriage is a joint and equal partnership and if it isn’t then it isn’t much of a marriage. 

For me it is only such an interpretation which makes sense of Jesus’ words: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14.26) but also: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  (Matthew 19.19)   We are called to love those who don’t belong to us, for even the wicked love those who belong the them.

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